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U.N. school sheltering civilians in Gaza targeted in deadly Israeli strike

Since the war began, many of UNRWA's elementary and prep schools in Gaza have been used as civilian shelters.

UNRWA said the school sheltered 6,000 displaced people when it was hit.
UNRWA said the school sheltered 6,000 displaced people when it was hit. (AN/UNRWA)

The U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees said it was shocked and "unable to verify" Israeli claims that one of its schools harbored Hamas militants.

At least 35 people were killed, mostly women and children, and many more were injured in an Israeli strike on Thursday at a school that sheltered 6,000 displaced Palestinians in central Gaza when it was hit, Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, or UNRWA, said.

"Another horrific day in Gaza. Another UNRWA school-turned-shelter attacked," he said, adding that the school at a refugee camp was hit overnight by Israeli forces without prior warning to the U.N. agency.

The Nuseirat camp, which takes its name from a local Bedouin tribe, was set up in the aftermath of the 1948 Arab-Israeli and now accommodates 85,409 registered Palestinian refugees, according to UNRWA.

"Claims that armed groups may have been inside the shelter are shocking. We are, however, unable to verify these claims," Lazzarini said. "Attacking, targeting or using U.N. buildings for military purposes are a blatant disregard of international humanitarian law. U.N. staff, premises and operations must be protected at all times."

Israel Defense Forces said its air force killed several Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists who "embedded themselves" inside UNRWA's al-Sardi School and had helped carry out Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack in Israel that killed 1,200 people and precipitated the war. A day earlier, Israel's military announced a new ground and air assault in central Gaza to hunt Hamas.

"IAF fighter jets conducted a precise strike on a Hamas compound embedded inside the school in the area of Nuseirat. These terrorists belonged to the Nukhba Forces and participated in the Oct. 7 massacre," IDF said. "Before the strike, a number of steps were taken to reduce the risk of harming uninvolved civilians during the strike, including conducting aerial surveillance, and additional intelligence information."

The Israeli fighter jets appear to have used U.S.-made GBU-39 small diameter bombs in the strike, The Washington Post reported, citing two weapons experts who examined verified footage from the debris.

In a ceremony at its New York headquarters, the United Nations honored 188 staff who lost their lives in the line of duty in 2023. More than two-thirds of those who died – 135 women and men – worked for UNRWA. Many were killed with their families in the communities they served.

“That is by far the highest number of our personnel killed in a single conflict or natural disaster since the creation of the United Nations, a reality we can never accept,” U.N. chief António Guterres said.

UNRWA's pre-war educational statistics
UNRWA's pre-war educational statistics

180 UNRWA buildings hit in air strikes

The European Union's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called for an investigation into the strike on UNRWA's al-Sardi School. "Reports coming from Gaza time and again show that violence and suffering are still the only reality for hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. This appalling news must be independently investigated," he said.

Since the war began, many of UNRWA's 284 elementary and prep schools in the Gaza Strip have been used as shelters. UNRWA estimates 75% of Gaza's population – 1.7 million out of 2.3 million people – are displaced.

As of late March, Israel had attacked more than 200 schools in Gaza and a quarter of those were completely destroyed, according to satellite imagery reviewed by UNICEF, Education Cluster and Save The Children. 

There has been widespread international condemnation of the civilian casualties caused by Israel's military in Gaza, where more than 36,500 people have been killed and 83,000 others injured in the war.

Israeli said its strikes last week that killed at least 45 people near an UNRWA tent camp in Rafah also targeted Hamas militants who use civilian infrastructure to hide out. More than 1 million people have fled Rafah since the start of Israel's military operations there.

Lazzarini said that since the war began in Gaza more than 180 UNRWA buildings have been hit in air strikes that killed 450 displaced people.

UNRWA routinely shares the coordinates of all of its facilities, including the al-Sardi School, with the Israeli army and other parties to the conflict, he said. "Targeting U.N. premises or using them for military purposes cannot become the new norm," he added. "This must stop and all those responsible must be held accountable."